The Letter
Dir: William Wyler
From 'Tarzan' through to 'Casablanca', there is a long history of Hollywood films set in exotic locations, but shot on the backlot.

Indeed, when Merian C. Cooper initially tried to get Paramount to make 'King Kong', the cost of filming in Africa put them off. RKO greenlit the film provided he shot on their jungle set.

A wonderful example is 'Top Hat', where the action moves to Venice, and the set designer creates a beautiful, stylized, art deco version of Venice complete with gondolas and canals, which looks far more like something you would find in Disneyland than in the real Venice.

But of course it doesn't matter.

It does not detract from 'Casablanca' that the closest we get to Morocco is the Warners backlot.
(Did you ever notice that in the final scene, the aeroplane is a half-scale cardboard mock-up, and that the extras are midgets?)

Nowadays, films create incredible vistas not even of this world, but forget along the way to tell a compelling story.
Television still plays this trick, regularly sending characters to far-off locations by virtue of a stockshot and a caption.

'The Letter' is set in Malaya, moving to Singapore. Again, while never stepping foot out of Los Angeles, it nevertheless creates an exotic setting, where the moon is big, cockatoos shriek, rubber drips from the trees, and colonial types sit on verandahs drinking gin.

And the wife of a British rubber planter fights to defend her life and reputation in an alien legal world against charges of murder.

There's only one hitch - she did it.

And there's an incriminating letter in existence that could send her to the gallows.

Based on a play by Somerset Maugham, the film provides a perfect role for Bette Davis, allowing her to run the gamut of emotions from cool and ruthless to terrified and vulnerable.

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times said, "The ultimate credit for as taut and insinuating a melodrama as has come along this year - a film which extenuates tension like a grim inquisitor's rack-must be given to Mr. Wyler. His hand is patent throughout."

It's a great film, and who cares that in the first few minutes, when the Malayan plantation work finds the dead body, he actually shouts out in Filipino.

Paul Spurrier